emotions during stress
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Managing Your Emotions During Intense Stress

By now, many of us have seen the recent viral video of MillerKnoll’s CEO responding explosively during a virtual all-employee meeting. When asked about a lack of company bonuses, her initial calm advice suddenly shifted as she told workers to “commit” and “leave pity city.” Garnering millions of views on social media and coverage in multiple news outlets, it’s been a public relations storm for the company and its employees.

This CEO joins the list of other C-suite leaders who have similarly criticized employees or made what were perceived to be insensitive remarks in their frustration over productivity, profits and pandemic-related work habits that they want to change.

In many situations like this, the viral “outburst” is seemingly brought on by an intense emotional response. Often, these companies face downturned sales or metrics, putting pressure on upper leadership. This stress sparks negative emotions and can even trigger our fight-or-flight response, overriding our logical thinking. It could be a situation that goes against deeply held values and priorities or evokes the memory of an adverse experience. It’s important to understand how this can set us up for the wrong behavioral response.

A few observations

First, we don’t know the full context or environment that led up to her response. Maybe she was especially tired or stressed. Maybe she’d responded to the question in the past and felt that her previous discussions were sufficient.

Second, any leader may find themselves in a similar position when they’re sharing information with a group of employees and trying to motivate the team to perform at their best or discussing a difficult topic.

Third, leaders need to anticipate team member needs. They must understand what concerns employees and think about how they can best respond to those worries. They must demonstrate empathy.

Emotional sparks

These emotional reactions can happen in a split second, sometimes with adverse results. One seemingly small spark can literally start a fire and negatively impact our relationships. Here are five steps to manage your emotions during high stress.

  1. Know what overwhelms you. Be aware of the type of comments and behaviors that evoke a visceral reaction in you. Write them down if needed. Know the people or profiles that are prone to evoke them. And remain sensitive to the physical or emotional reactions that manifest when you’re provoked. The goal is to be able to immediately recognize it so that you can manage the other steps.
  2. Prevent the fight-or-flight reaction. Instead, take a deep breath. Count to five. Pause. Think.
    • Is this something that I need to respond to immediately?
    • Who else is present? How might they react to what I said? How might I respond?
    • Am I the obvious person “in the room” to respond to this?
    • Am I the only one stressed out by it?
    • Is it more important for me to respond quickly and potentially damage this relationship, or will I have a better response if I pause and think about where the other person is coming from?
  3. Engage a colleague. If you’re part of a cohesive leadership team, you will know a bit about each other’s behaviors. Thus, a colleague may recognize that this is a stress point for you and may feel better equipped to respond. Or you can invite them to join the dialogue. This helps to buy time for you to develop your best response to the situation.
  4. Think about your audience’s concerns and your role. They will only listen to you if they know you are listening to them. Convey empathy by taking an active interest in their thoughts and feelings. Sincerely make them feel valued.
  5. Pre-plan your response. When possible, before meeting with a group of employees, consult with your leadership team and others who know the issues and discuss how you can best respond to them. Ensure you know what they need to hear from you to convey your support and that you care. Roleplay off-the-cuff questions to help you prepare your responses.

Keep control over your emotions during stress—it changes everything

In today’s world, leaders must operate with a heightened awareness that anything they say or do will be amplified and multiplied. The reaction of leaders can impact entire organizations and stakeholders, including the value of the company.

Learning to manage your emotional response means being responsible to ensure that every action and reaction is as appropriate as possible for the moment. This may seem like a huge charge, an impossible task, but that’s the duty of a leader. No one is perfect at it, but the goal is to continually improve and to be the best possible leader for your team.

A key part of mastering your emotions is making sure that you take time for yourself. Try out some Tech Tools To Combat Stress.

About the author

Priscilla Archangel

Priscilla Archangel, Ph.D. is a seasoned leadership consultant, executive coach, author, speaker, and teacher. She has a passion for developing leaders, and motivating individuals and organizations to align their values, behaviors and goals with their purpose. Visit priscillaarchangel.com.

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